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William W. Saunders, Jr.

On-Line Mastering Thoughts

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I've always mastered my own tracks in Cakewalk and SoundForge but I'm considering trying an on-line service like CDBaby to see what the difference would be.  Does anyone have any experience doing this and any recommendations? 

I never did try LANDR when that free offer came out a few years back. How do they rate?

Thanks,

Bill

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Just my opinion, you will be much better off learning to master yourself. It does take dedication to be a great mastering engineer but much voodoo has been spread across the industry that scares most of us to death about how difficult it is!!

If you have a good eq, compressor and or limiter, and a decent pair of monitors, you can do the job!!

Online mastering can deliver a master but I trust my judgment and ears more than an online computer algorithm to deliver what I want to hear.

Just remember that online services have their own levels they prefer to use. Make sure you find out their limits and master to that and you will probably be much happier!!!

Edited by Sidney Earl Goodroe
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I'm not a fan of "this doesn't answer my question," answers but I'm going to follow in Sidney's footsteps and offer an alternate/similar/complementary suggestion.

I have no experience with online mastering services. However.

Pluginboutique is currently running a promotional deal where all the iZotope Elements packages are $8.88, including Ozone Elements 9.

It includes the aforementioned "good EQ and limiter" in addition to a spatializing tool.

Somewhat controversial advice: it also comes with a very useful set of presets and a "mastering assistant" wizard that can analyze your track and apply suggested settings that you can then tweak to suit your taste.

I have found it to be a valuable tool for learning my own mastering techniques. It's also great for quickie use when I've just recorded some stuff, thrown together a rough mix and want it to sound good right away.

$8.88 is the proverbial "no brainer" just to get the EQ and maximizer/limiter. They also have Neutron Elements for the same price, which I would snag as well, if you don't have that, and RX Elements. I'd skip Nectar Elements, as it doesn't allow access to the parameters, but they have Stutter Edit and Breaktweaker if you are into EDM.

When I first got Ozone Elements, it was a bit heartbreaking, because I had been trying to learn mastering for some time, and then I slapped a few presets on this thing and they sounded so much better. But it challenged me, and I eventually got to where I like what I can do as much or better. Sometimes I use Ozone, sometimes other tools, sometimes a combination.

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I recently wanted to try online mastering and compare to my own limited skills. So i tried a few songs in a few versions on Bandlab, i signed up for a month of cloudbounce based on reviews, and did 10 songs of different styles in about 3 or 4 different setting combinations (they have quite a few options) and used ozone 9 master assistant with adding my own additional modules like imager exciter low end balance and made some changes to the eq and maximizer settings. My conclusion was i liked my ozone outcomes best but with all the modules available its a much broader bunch of tools. Im pretty new to mastering so just how i felt with little mastering experience. I did a lot of reading about online mastering first, and believe experienced mastering ppl dont think too highly of the ai mastering, but they are experienced. Overall it was interesting to do all i did, listen to all the versions, look at how their eq patterns were etc. I learned a little more from trying online mastering experiments, but will be using ozone. 

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Thanks,  ya'll.  Excellent points, I can  totally agree with all of them.  Witnesseth that:

@sidney & krupa:   I've been recording and "mastering" (of some sort) since hooking 2-track Sony reel-to-reel decks together in 1972.  So I am definitely on the "learn-to-master-it-yourself" and "get-the-right-tools" side of the spectrum.

@treesha & krupa:  I do my mastering now in Cakewalk using Ozone 9 in the Music Production Suite 3 (and Vers. 8 and 7 before it) to master and export my mixes to Soundforge, examine and trim them there.  The tools are great, the Mastering Assistant is indeed a great starting point to understand what my mixes need and how to tune them.

I really do like what I'm coming up with.  But I'm almost done with an album length project and am wondering if hearing my mixes mastered differently would teach me anything.

Thanks to this forum and to the people who have kept Cakewalk going and progressing all these years.  I'm a 25-year user and abuser of this great program.  It's really hard to believe - at any price.

Aloha, Bill

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It's so cheap to try, if you really care about a mix, let them try and compare with your own. You might learn something that helps you do a better job on your own.

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This isn't an original thought but I agree with it...take 50 different mixers and you will have 50 different mixes. I think a similar thing could be said about mastering, maybe not that much of a difference but I can imagine lots of variation between mastering engineers.

For me....I have invested a fair amount of both my time and money in gear and software all very capable. I have an interest in this, so why would I ever do anything but roll my own masters? The mix and master can be an extension of an artistic vision even if in only small ways. Give the job to some unattached concern and you are now subject to their interpretation of a good mix or master. One might limit the track to almost clipping, another might keep the mix tame intentionally. One might like a little more air in the mix, another might want to shave that off. I'm sure I still make bad mixes here and there, but at least they are MY bad mixes :)

I have had Ozone all the way since version 5 I think and now we are at version 9. Its a great way to look at what they have done with the presets and in looking at these or any mastering chain we can see what's going on. Lots of times there's an exciter in the chain making you think wow! Or they bumped up the air in an EQ. When it's just  a bunch of high frequency hype similar to the BBE Sonic Maximixer....I can recall being told on the old Cakewalk forum that they were not that great for master work and thinking why not? lol. I often look at those chains in Ozone when I use it and make changes based on what I want to do. Many  believe a master will make their material LOUDER and are not thinking about what it can potentially do to your mix. 

If your invested in a DAW and have some decent plugins for master work...I say go for it. Nothing to loose.  Makes no sense to me to learn mixing and figure the rest is impossible for the average person. I disagree. If you can mix and understand  the whole signal chain process, then you are capable to learn to master. Sometimes a master barely touches the mix....just very small adjustments here and there. 

If you are leaning towards wanting a second opinion, maybe hearing isn't what it used to be, or just want another professional opinion. Can't hurt to have several sets of ears on something. 

Edited by Starise

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Thanks, everyone. I'll keep mastering all my own stuff, as I enjoy it and I enjoy the results (never had the intention to stop doing that).   I'm just curious to see if someone else could take my mix and do something with it unexpected and exciting or at least inspiring.  So if anyone knows someone skilled who might do this inexpensively, please let me know.

 

Ciao,

Bill

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Everybody's dancing around it, but I'll just say it out loud: automated mastering is snake oil.

Many accomplished mix engineers also happen to also be accomplished mastering engineers (e.g. Phil Ramone). But they don't master their own records. The value of an ME isn't in his expensive gear, granite speakers or perfectly-tuned rooms. The true value is having a separate set of ears that can critically and objectively evaluate your mix, in an environment other than your own studio. To that end, you'd do just as well by offering to swap mastering duties with somebody from the Songs forum.

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We are not there yet. Give it another 20 years from now and there will be great strides in online mastering. Something that will be able to ask you 25 questions and then analyze your mix and master to a specification. Right now its just a few algorithms doing guess work and what i like to call "turd polishing".

Nothing better than a human feel for something that was mixed by a human. Even though a lot of stuff now is done by machines, the more we put our hands in to it, the better off it sounds.  

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17 hours ago, bitflipper said:

Everybody's dancing around it, but I'll just say it out loud: automated mastering is snake oil.

Many accomplished mix engineers also happen to also be accomplished mastering engineers (e.g. Phil Ramone). But they don't master their own records. The value of an ME isn't in his expensive gear, granite speakers or perfectly-tuned rooms. The true value is having a separate set of ears that can critically and objectively evaluate your mix, in an environment other than your own studio. To that end, you'd do just as well by offering to swap mastering duties with somebody from the Songs forum.

Izotope's machine learning  with the Mastering Assistant isn't exactly snake oil.  It works plain and simple.  

AI/Machine Learning is  and actual thing and they have created a tool that makes judegements and adjustments based on what humans did with source material.

Is it perfect to get the sound you want every time?  Of course not, nor is sending it to some human.  

 

In this respect, you are sending it to someone elses ears...a virtual compilation of thousands of recordings that came before it and it is giving you and output that reflects that.  It is arguably the representation of far more sets of experience than your average ME that a normal person can afford.  It still has a ways to go to be perfect, but that is no different than any ME I've ever met, and I know a number that have worked on Grammy winners.   

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My wife and I once toured a new housing development. Some of the homes were still under construction, which the salesman promoted as a plus, since we'd be able to customize the house. My wife asked if that included the color of the house. No, that was strictly forbidden, we were told. These colors - all a variations of gray - had been chosen by urban planning experts for maximum homogeneity and inoffensiveness.  Likewise the limits on external decorations, including trees, shrubs and fences. You were not allowed to work on your car in your own driveway. Grass had to be trimmed weekly. Violating these rules would result in a fine.

Looking around the development, we noticed that everybody living there also  looked the same, as did their kids. Real Stepford Wives stuff. They all drove the same type of car. My guess is they all held the same social and political views, too. We couldn't get out of there fast enough. Driving home, we noticed that every new housing development was a clone of that one. We gained a new appreciation for our older neighborhood with no official color scheme, both messy and neatly manicured lawns, bicycles lying in the yard and cars on jack stands. And people who represented a cross section of humanity, not cookie-cutter clones of one another.

If you think that kind of rigorously-enforced blandness couldn't possible apply to creative endeavors such as music and art, look around. Ever fall asleep in a movie because you knew exactly what was going to happen next? We're being guided into a world of eggshell-colored sameness.

I don't want that, even if I could personally determine what the universal mastering standards would be. Call it AI if it makes you feel more progressive, but this is really just art by committee. And don't say there's no difference between AI and a human export who similarly follows rules and norms. An ME will always come back to the client and ask "what do ya think?", or even tell the mix engineer to give it another try because it's not ready for mastering yet. An ME evaluates whether the song lyrics are intelligible, something AI will never be able to do (what would it think of "goo goo goo joob?").

Brian, you are correct that software assistants will get better. Heck, I use them myself every day in the form of spectrum analyzers, correlation meters, goniometers and such. I argue against the absurdity of the "only use your ears" manifesto, which conveniently ignores the limitations of human ears, psychoacoustic perception, speakers and room acoustics. Software aids are good. But automated mastering attempts to completely remove the human brain from the process, and no matter how good the AI gets it will never yield anything other than average results. That's just how it works.

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On 2/16/2020 at 7:33 AM, Starise said:

This isn't an original thought but I agree with it...take 50 different mixers and you will have 50 different mixes. I think a similar thing could be said about mastering, maybe not that much of a difference but I can imagine lots of variation between mastering engineers.

I've mastered hundreds of tracks. Just finished mastering (for vinyl!) a jazz album for Martha Davis (the Motels). I couldn't agree more with what you say.  I've always said there are 20 valid ways to master a recording, but the only one that matters is the one the artist likes.

I'm proud of the fact that I have no "sound." My goal is always to amplify the artist's intention, not turn it into something else. 

As to online mastering...I differentiate between different mastering goals. If you have a live recording you want to put on your web site for you fans, try the online mastering. If you like it, great - you just saved yourself a ton of money. If you have a mission-critical project, then use a good mastering engineer. I didn't say "professional" mastering engineer - I said a "good" one. It's not always the same thing.

Finally, what makes a good mastering engineer is ears and experience, and good acoustics in the mastering suite. You don't need a lot of gear and plug-ins. I'd say EQ is 90% of my mastering approach, and everything else takes up the other 10%.

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I agree with Bitflipper's analogy  and Craig's approach that the customer is always right. No matter how much we try to be unbiased I believe some individuality will shine through the process. I can see where this could get dicey. The ME could say, I didn't really do anything to it. It's all neutral, yet the artist obviously WANTS something to be done to it. My guess is they want "radio ready"whatever that is.....just under the ceiling for LUFS . Put some sheen on it. Make it pop.

With the ability to both mix and master as one process it can be a real can of worms. The big no no. In the old days the ME usually only had access to the un- mastered final cut. It's probably still done that way in the majority of projects. I tend to see mixing and mastering as two separate things for that reason and have even been on the soap box pontificating about it as the "right" way. In reality though, I have to ask. Is it really?  I think maybe to play with the front end of the mix while listening to the back end could  be an advantage. I have been known to do it here and there. For instance if there is one small element of the mix  that might prevent me from making larger changes to the end product, I might just try it.

Now that we have the ability to hear what a file will sound like as an mp3 coming right off the master. If I hear it and don't like something about it I can go back into the front end of the mix and see if a tweak or two might fix it. It could also cause some major problems because you are basically going to the bottom of a 50 card pyramid and attempting to remove one of the bottom cards without causing the whole house of cards to come down. I'll admit to occasionally doing it though.

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I worked a lot with software, professionally and for myself, and in my experience one of the most frequent problems is that the analyst(s) and/or engineer(s) forget to rule rare cases and exceptions as many topics are to complex. This even happens in software development for airplanes and fighters and leads sometimes even to their crashes, although that is one of the software industries that implies most money, manpower and testing cycles (but nevertheless it happens)! In other words IMO a real good online mastering or something else that is art-like is nearly impossible!

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22 hours ago, marled said:

In other words IMO a real good online mastering or something else that is art-like is nearly impossible!

Another aspect that hasn't been mentioned is that an algorithm can't do something like decide to cut four bars out of a long, self-indulgent solo...or decide where to fade, or whether to crossfade two cuts together. In theory, an algorithm could help fix some technical deficiencies, but there's no way it could make artistic decisions.

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I would never, for example, use LANDR to master the new album I've been working on for five years, but I am using it to get an idea of what mastering might do to my mixes when I listen to my mixes "out in the wild" (testing them in my car, on my home stereo, on a phone, etc.). It has its uses. I'd also use it for a quickie song that's only on my Soundcloud or something. It often represents an improvement over my pre-mastered mix. If there were no such thing as human mastering engineers, I'd most likely use LANDR on my songs. Fortunately, there are such a thing as human mastering engineers.

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And I agree with those that say that part of what you're paying for with a human mastering engineer is another pair of experienced, smart ears on your mix. I work with an engineer named Carl Saff who offers unlimited revisions. He'll keep going until you're happy. So, if his initial feeling about what your mix needs doesn't jive with mine, we just try again. It's a good system.

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